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Penguins

Outscored 9-2 in last two games, Sullivan still trusts 'simple bunch' on blue line

| Tuesday, June 6, 2017, 5:48 p.m.
Penguins defenseman Ron Hainsey (65) takes out Predators center Filip Forsberg (9) over Penguins goalie Matt Murray in the second period during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday, June 3, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Ron Hainsey (65) takes out Predators center Filip Forsberg (9) over Penguins goalie Matt Murray in the second period during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday, June 3, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

Just throw the puck at an opposing player's skates and see what happens next — that's the tactic on which Penguins defenseman Ron Hainsey suggested the Stanley Cup Final might hinge following Monday's 4-1 loss to Nashville in Game 4.

Twice on Monday, Hainsey said he tried “high flips” just to see what kind of havoc might ensue up the ice, but neither flick of the puck elevated enough to clear pressuring Predators.

“Those are kind of chance plays,” Hainsey said, “but they're good plays, because a lot of the time, teams are so structured in the neutral zone, there's not a lot there.”

Just past the halfway point of the series, the Penguins admit they're not dictating possession or pace to the degree they prefer. They're struggling to match Nashville's speed or solve its puck pursuit. But the blueliners, responsible for initiating the Penguins' transition from offense to defense, believe the secret to eluding danger and doom in their own end exists in safe dump-outs and faith in fortuitous bounces that find their way to Sidney Crosby and the rest of the proven playmakers up front.

“I wouldn't say they're any faster than Washington,” Ian Cole said. “Columbus gets on you hard too. So it's not something that we haven't seen before. We just need to do a better job of maybe reading their speed and reading the play a little bit better.

“We had a nice one there with Sid on his goal (in Game 4). We found open ice behind them when they were trying to come forward, and we got them going the other way. If we can continue to do that, then we'll give ourselves some chances, for sure.”

In Game 4, the Penguins finished with more five-on-five shot attempts than they allowed when they had Hainsey, Cole or Justin Schultz out on the ice. High-danger scoring chances as defined by www.naturalstattrick.com also put Hainsey and Schultz in a particularly favorable light. But Schultz and Cole were on the ice for two even-strength goals against, while Hainsey finished as a plus-one.

All of the performance metrics — those available to the public and those shared on a proprietary basis — help inform coach Mike Sullivan and his staff of how well the Penguins are handling “the process,” to use Sullivan's term. Final scores in the Stanley Cup Final — 5-3, 4-1, 5-1 and 4-1 — suggest a lack of close games, but the coach insisted that's far from the truth. “Preventable goals” just seized too big of a role in the four meetings.

“We've been on both sides of it,” Sullivan said.

A season ago, the Penguins controlled play often enough in the playoffs to shrug if they encountered a game with bad breaks. They left little up to the odds when they deployed their stars.

Sullivan's “right way” to play has become a fluid concept more than a firm identity with an injury-depleted defense corps. There's no excuse making at this stage of the playoffs, a reality acknowledged by Nashville coach Peter Laviolette as he lauded the Predators' ability to overcome the absence of first-line center Ryan Johansen.

“You're at a point in the season where you sink or swim,” Laviolette said. “Those are your only two choices. We need to have guys to continue to play the game at a high level because of where we're at in the season right now.”

Asked about what his defensemen are bringing to both ends of the ice after Game 4, Sullivan stopped short of championing his blueliners' play but recognized their efforts to keep the Penguins afloat.

“You know, our blueline crew, they're a simple bunch,” Sullivan said. “They're trying to make plays to get out of our end zone. They're trying to help us along that offensive blueline. I don't think we have anybody back there that wows you offensively.

“I think they're trying to play the game the right way. What I really like about them is their compete level. As I've said all along here, they're not perfect by any stretch. But these guys are competing. I believe that they're doing their very best to help us at both ends of the rink.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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